Solana close 298.88.
(photo credit: AP [file])
Israeli officials expressed disappointment Wednesday that EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana backed a full Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights following talks in Damascus with Syrian leaders, rather than publicly calling Syria to task for supporting terrorism.
But, the officials said, Solana's remarks did not signify a significant change in EU policy, since the EU has backed a return of the Golan to Syria for years.
Nevertheless, one official said, "This is not the message that Syria needed to hear at this time. Syria needed to hear that it must stop supporting terrorism, stop trying to undermine the government in Lebanon, stop supporting Hizbullah and Iran."
Solana, the official said, went to Damascus with a number of "benchmarks," and Israel had hoped Solana would put Syria "in its place."
Solana's words on the Golan, the official said, were certainly not what Israel wanted to hear. "We are interested in working for your country to return to itself the territories that were captured in [the 1967 war]," Solana said at a press conference with Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Moallem after meeting with President Bashar Assad.
Solana's remarks prompted strong reactions from MKs. "There is no chance Israel will retreat from the Golan Heights. The Golan Heights are an inseparable part of the State of Israel and are essential for its security and defense," said MK Yisrael Katz (Likud).
MK Nissan Slomiansky (NU/NRP) joined in Katz's criticism. "Solana should know that if he wants to continue to be a neutral mediator between states in conflict with each other, it is inappropriate that he should choose to travel to a known terror-supporting country and make one-sided statements. If he continues to present a one-sided view the European Union will become irrelevant," Slomiansky said.
MK Ophir Paz-Pines (Labor) asked for an emergency meeting of the Knesset following Solana's statements.
"What Solana said today is not in harmony with what he said just a few months ago, in a forum that included members of the Knesset," Paz-Pines said. "Then, he said Syria's foreign policy was totally untenable."
Meretz chairman Yossi Beilin, on the other hand, said Solana's visit to Damascus was timely. "The change in the policy of the EU and the US will bring about a quick revival of the negotiations between Israel and Syria. The negotiation should have no preconditions on both sides, lead to security arrangements and to severing Syria's ties with Israel's enemies. Israel would have to return the Golan Heights, which were under Syrian sovereignty until 1967," Beilin said.
Syria, through its state-run press, welcomed Solana's visit, the last leg of a trip that also took him to Saudi Arabia and Lebanon, as a good move "after a long absence."
Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and Defense Minister Amir Peretz, meanwhile, met Wednesday in New York with UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. Ban is scheduled to make his maiden visit to the region as secretary-general on March 25, a day after the expected arrival of US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.
According to Livni's office, the hourlong talks with Ban focused on four key issues: implementation of UN Security Council Resolution 1701 that brought about the end of last summer's war in Lebanon; Iran; the formation of a Palestinian Authority unity government; and the upcoming Arab League summit in Riyadh.
Regarding Resolution 1701, Livni told Ban that from Israel's point of view, the resolution had not been implemented as reservists Eldad Regev and Ehud Goldwasser were still in captivity and the embargo of arms to Hizbullah was not being enforced.
Ban is expected to give a report to the Security Council at the end of the month on the implementation of the resolution.
As for Iran, Livni called for the UN to step up measures against the regime in Teheran. "The UN should widen and deepen the sanctions on Iran," she said.
Livni's office said there was agreement in the meeting that the proposed PA unity government would need to comply with the Quartet's three benchmarks before being granted international legitimacy. Livni also stressed that Israel would "view any future Palestinian government as one body," and "saw no point in making distinctions between one minister and another." These comments came as voices in Europe called for the EU to engage with Fatah ministers, even if it continues to boycott Hamas ministers inside the PA government.
The final issue raised in the meeting was the Arab League summit, with Livni reiterating Israel's position that if the Arab world wanted to see real diplomatic progress, it needed to drop any clauses calling for the return of Palestinian refugees to Israel.
Livni then flew from New York to Washington, where she was expected to hold talks in the evening with Rice. The secretary of state was expected to discuss recent events such as the Olmert-Abbas meeting and the Mecca accord, as well as look ahead to her visit to the region and how to deal with a PA unity government.
The talks were expected to be "policy-oriented," according to one State Department official, who noted how frequently the Israelis and Americans were in touch.
In a related diplomatic development, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert told the heads of the American Jewish Committee in a meeting Wednesday in Jerusalem that a premature American withdrawal from Iraq, before the country was stabilized, would weaken the United States's ability to help Israel deal with the Iranian nuclear issue.
"Israel prefers a diplomatic solution to the Iranian nuclear threat," he said, declaring that "only a strong America can bring the international community to pressure Iran diplomatically, [and] the level of determination, commitment and sensitivity of the American administration will determine [this]."
Olmert asked the AJC leaders to take this message back to the United States, telling them that friends of Israel must take into account what a premature withdrawal would do to the international standing of the US and to America's ability to help Israel.
The AJC leaders were in Israel for a three-day visit in the middle of a tour of Middle Eastern states. They visited Jordan and Qatar earlier this week, and will head to Morocco and Tunisia after leaving Israel this weekend.
According to an AJC representative, the group told Olmert that in their meetings with Arab leaders, including Qatar's Emir Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani and Jordanian Foreign Minister Abdelelah al-Khatib, they heard that "the Arab world is worried about the Iranian nuclear threat and was willing to cooperate with the West to prevent an Iranian bomb that would destabilize the region."
Haviv Rettig and Hilary Leila Krieger contributed to this report.